“You know the only reason I come to these things is because you want to go, right?”
Kimber batted her eyes at me and smirked. “Aww, the sacrifices you make for your baby girl.”
“As if I haven’t made enough already.” I parked outside the hotel where the command had rented the ballroom for the evening. I was actually amazed this tiny town had a big enough hotel to host something like this, but wonders never ceased.
The lot was mostly full already, so obviously this year’s Navy Ball was a popular one. Great. The more, the merrier, said everyone right up until the cops had to be called.
I stepped out of the car, fussed with my black bow tie, and buttoned my jacket. It was a bit snug; either I needed to spend some more time at the gym, or I’d damn well better get this uniform let out before Kimber strong-armed me into next year’s ball. For tonight, I just prayed like hell the single button holding it together above the gold cummerbund didn’t snap off.
On the other hand, standing up straight and pulling in my midsection did take some of the strain off my back. Not enough to go without my TENS unit—I’d been clinging to that fucker since breakfast—but it helped.
At least I wasn’t wearing a back brace this year. That combined with my dinner dress uniform had been downright suffocating. God help me if I had to restick one of the TENS pads or untangle a wire, or if the fucking battery died again, but I’d deal with that if it happened.
I could do this. It was only a few hours.
I stood up straighter, sucked it in, and adjusted my jacket.
A few long hours. Joy.
On the sidewalk, Kimber fussed with the strap on her bright-red dress and swore under her breath.
“Stupid . . . fucking . . .” She rolled her shoulders. “Okay. I think I’m ready.”
“Shut up.” She laughed. “You have my ID, right?”
I tapped the pocket where I kept my wallet. “Yep.”
“Okay. Good. Let’s get inside. It’s freezing out here.”
“Well yeah. It’s October.” I didn’t mention it would be warmer if she wore the jacket draped over her arm, mostly because she’d get me back later when I bitched about being too hot in my jacket. Never mind that I was required to wear mine whether I liked it or not.
As we headed inside, I tugged at my lapels and my sleeves, and suppressed a groan. The ball was an annual form of torture that was ostensibly to celebrate the Navy’s birthday. I was pretty sure it only existed so we’d all have a reason to wear our dinner dress uniforms. Or, more to the point, a reason to clean them, iron them, and spend half an evening cursing at all the medals and insignia that refused to go on properly, all before scrambling to the on-base tailor because maybe we’d put on some weight since last year.
But Kimber loved these shindigs, so she came with me as my “date.” And even if I thought this fell somewhere between waterboarding and watching Sex and the City, I tamped down my distaste as we walked inside.
The ballroom was packed with round tables and decorated to the gills, looking as glorious as any Holiday Inn banquet. The organizers were well aware that there were a lot of people here with varying degrees of PTSD, so they didn’t go crazy with strobes or spotlights or anything like that. No disco ball over the dance floor. No funky lights from the deejay’s booth. The sunken lights overhead were dim, creating a nice atmosphere, and everything was soft and subtle enough to avoid ruining someone’s evening.
With any luck, the food would be decent, but if the last five Navy Balls I’d attended were any indication . . . well . . . I wasn’t holding my breath. Just as well. As snug as my uniform was this year, I would need to hold my breath if I actually ate very much.
“So.” Kimber looked around after we’d checked her coat. “Where should we sit?”
I scanned the room for familiar faces, and found Norris, one of the guys from my office. He and his wife had commandeered a table on the opposite side of the room from the buffet. Wise—the buffet was going to get crowded as hell once the lids came off the chafing dishes. At least it would be reasonably quiet over here.
We joined them and claimed a couple of chairs on the side facing the front of the room. There was a lot of pomp and circumstance at these things, and the people with their backs to the front would have to spend a good hour twisted around to face the right direction. The pain in my back intensified just thinking about it. The tingle from the TENS still helped, but I had to wonder how long that would last. Good thing the control box was the perfect size to fit in the pocket of my trousers where it was inconspicuous and within easy reach if I needed to crank it up. Which, judging by the tightness in the middle of my back, I would.
“I’m going to go get a drink.” Kimber nodded toward one of several bars. “You want anything?”
“Yes, please.” I took out my wallet and pulled out her ID, which I carried tonight since she didn’t have any pockets and hated purses, along with some cash to tip the bartender. “Whatever you’re having.”
“Unless it’s fruity and comes with an umbrella, right?”
I wrinkled my nose. “Obviously.”
“Got it. Back in a minute.”
Peering the growing lines at each bar, I said, “Good luck with that.”
“Eh. I’ll be fine.” She grinned. “Plenty of eye candy.”
“Uh-huh. Go.” I playfully shooed her away, and she headed toward the bar. While she was gone, I looked around for more people I knew. Almost everyone from my office was planning to come—open bar was the quickest way to persuade officers and Sailors alike to show up, after all.
Sure enough, Captain Rodriguez, our commanding officer, was walking in with her husband. They’d barely taken off their coats before the executive officer, Commander Johnson, was right in their faces, brown-nosing like he always did. I rolled my eyes. Yeah, making captain was a political game—didn’t I know it—but Captain Rodriguez didn’t like kiss-asses. Well, fine. Let him earn himself some “not a chance, asshole” points. One less commander for me to compete with for that coveted promotion.
I left him to his idiocy and looked around again, and—
My stomach flipped.
Lieutenant Commander Fraser.
The crowded room was suddenly empty. Everyone else faded into the shadows as my brain superimposed a spotlight over him like some sort of cheesy 1980s prom movie special effect.
I’d been ogling that man since he’d transferred to NAS Adams recently. Tonight he took “oh my God” to a whole new level when he strolled into the Navy Ball in his dinner dress uniform. The short jacket and tailored trousers made even the least attractive man look good, but Fraser . . . Jesus. Something told me he hadn’t struggled with getting into his uniform. It all fit like he’d been poured into it. The trousers hugged his slim waist, and the jacket clung comfortably to his shoulders. The button holding everything together in the front didn’t look like it was straining at all, and he didn’t appear to be sucking in his gut under the cummerbund like the rest of us.
He’d been hot before. Tonight he was going to be the reason I wound up drooling on my not-quite-as-nicely-fitted uniform.
Of course that was before I realized he’d come in with a date’s hand on his elbow.
And that date was a man.
I shook myself, blinked, and stared.
Lieutenant Commander . . . Fraser . . . is . . . gay?
Why the fuck had I not gotten that memo?
I looked around for Kimber, praying like hell she’d made it to the front of the line and acquired something cold and alcoholic for her hopelessly crushing dad. Even if it was fruity and had an umbrella, I needed it. Now.
She was almost to the front. Two guys were ahead of her, one of whom was gathering a handful of drinks. So it wouldn’t be long.
I turned back toward Fraser.
From the first moment I’d seen him at work, I’d been tripping over my own feet. Didn’t matter if he was in his blue camouflage utilities, or shorts and a T-shirt at the gym, or in civvies when we crossed paths on the base, or . . . or this. He had the kind of sharp, somewhat weathered features that were catnip to me. Smooth and flawless was fine and good, but especially as I got older myself, there was something about the lines by the corners of his eyes and the traces of silver in his sandy-blond hair that tongue-tied me all to hell. And of course he worked right down the hall from me, so it was a wonder I got anything done anymore.
He turned his head, and from across the room, our eyes locked.
I quickly turned away. Probably too quickly—the sudden twinge in my back made my teeth snap together—but better than still staring after I’d already been busted.
C’mon, Kimber. C’mon. Hurry.
Minutes later—while I was sneaking my three hundredth glance at Fraser—my daughter shouldered her way through the thickening crowd and held up a pair of brown bottles. “Two beers.”
“Awesome. Thank you.” I took mine, and we clinked our bottles together. Then I took a much-needed deep swallow, which of course did nothing to lessen the effect of gay dinner-dress-uniform Lieutenant Commander Fraser does not compute, does not compute . . . Did he just make eye contact again?
I really need to let out this uniform before next year. Can’t breathe.
“Dad?” Kimber tilted her head. “Why are you blushing?”
“Blushing?” I sputtered. “I am not.”
She eyed me as she sipped her own beer. “Let me guess—you’re hot because of your uniform.”
I glanced down at my jacket. Goddamn. I’d had an alibi right there and didn’t even think to use it. “Um . . .”
“Now you’re really blushing, Dad.”
“Shut up,” I muttered, and took a drink.
“I’m just saying.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” I elbowed her playfully. “You’re just saying—”
Fraser’s voice sent my heart into my throat. Good thing I hadn’t had a mouthful of beer right then, or it would’ve wound up all over Kimber. Or Fraser.
Schooling my expression, I turned around. “Hey, good to see you.”
“You too, sir.”
I shook his hand, smiling despite my pounding heart. “We’re technically not at work. Call me Travis.”
He gulped, like he wasn’t sure what to do with the informality. “Oh. Okay.” He glanced down, probably realizing our handshake had lasted a few beats too long, and withdrew his hand. “I guess call me Clint, then.”
So Lieutenant Commander Fraser was really Clint, a guy who had a boyfriend and looked incredibly hot in his dress uniform. Yeah, that was going to make things easier around the office.
His eyes darted toward Kimber, and to his own date, as if he wasn’t sure who should introduce who first.
I cleared my throat. “Well, um . . . This is my daughter, Kimber.”
“Your—” His eyebrows jumped a bit, but he quickly extended his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
She smiled as they shook hands. “Hi.”
“Hi.” He let her go and gestured at the guy beside him. “This is Logan. My . . .” he hesitated, “date.”
Logan glanced at him, as if he wasn’t sure how to respond to the hesitation over the nature of their relationship, then drained his beer bottle.
Clint shifted his weight, avoiding eye contact for a moment. Beside him, Logan rolled his eyes. I couldn’t help wondering if Clint’s hesitation a moment ago had been because he was second-guessing how out he wanted to be—that ship has sailed, my friend—or if there was some underlying issue between him and his “date.”
Finally, Logan turned to Clint. “I’m going to get another. You sure you don’t want one?”
Clint’s lips tightened, and he shook his head as he muttered something that sounded like, “You know I don’t.”
Logan gave a quiet, semidrunken laugh, nudging Clint with his shoulder. “Back in a minute.” He didn’t wait for a response, and headed for the bar. And despite how early in the evening it was, he was already noticeably unsteady on his feet.
Clint watched him go, and slowly pushed out a breath. “Sorry about . . .” He glanced at Logan’s back. Lowered his gaze. Shook his head. “Anyway. Um.” He coughed and looked around. “Looks like this command puts on a decent ball.”
I nodded, scanning the room again while I willed my pulse to come back down. After a moment, I turned to him. “Don’t get your hopes up about the food, though.”
“Get my hopes up?” Clint laughed, crinkling the corners of his eyes and sending my heart rate right back up into the stratosphere again. “This isn’t my first command. Trust me—my expectations are as realistic as yours.”
Chuckling, I brought my beer up to my lips. “Good. Then you won’t be disappointed.”
He started to say something, but hesitated and shifted his gaze away. If I wasn’t mistaken, some color rose in his cheeks.
Beside me, Kimber smothered a laugh.
I glared at her, and she quickly gestured with her beer bottle. “I’m going to go mingle.”
“Okay.” I fished my wallet out of my trouser pocket. “Here. In case you need a refill.” I shoved a five in her hand for tips and shooed her away, and she shot me a mischievous grin and—when Clint still wasn’t looking, thank God—a wink. Then she was gone.
And I was suddenly alone with the guy who worked five offices down from mine—not that I’d counted—and had a boyfriend or “date” or something who’d gone off to get a drink he probably didn’t need. The silence lingered uncomfortably for a moment, but Clint finally met my gaze and spoke.
“So, how do you think we did on the inspection?”
Normally, I hated shoptalk at functions like this, but sometimes it was a godsend. What better fallback for some socially awkward guys—gay and drooling or not—who couldn’t figure out what else to talk about?
So we discussed the inspection, and I focused half my attention on that and half on playing it cool. Not letting him see how much he’d flipped my world on its ass simply by showing up with a man. Except what difference did it make? It didn’t matter if he was gay when he was obviously spoken for. Unless there really was some trouble brewing between him and his date.
I tamped that thought down. I was not an opportunist who’d swoop in the second someone’s relationship ended. It was an absolute certainty that I’d be thinking about him later with a hand on my dick, but it wouldn’t go any further than that. Damn what few scruples I had.
As we talked, I sipped my beer, and for once, didn’t feel the need to go outside for a cigarette. I only smoked when I drank, and that itch for nicotine was definitely there beneath my skin, but I didn’t give in because I didn’t want to go outside. I had a moment to talk one-on-one with Clint-not-Lieutenant-Commander-Fraser. The cigarette could wait.
Someone tapped the microphone at the front of the room and announced the cocktail hour was over. Everyone took their seats.
And wasn’t it just my luck . . .
Clint and his date sat down at my table.
Once a fearless fighter pilot, Commander Travis Wilson is now confined to a desk. It’s been eight years since the near-fatal crash that grounded him, and it still rules his life thanks to relentless back pain.
Lieutenant Commander Clint Fraser almost drowned in a bottle after a highly classified catastrophe while piloting a drone. His downward spiral cost him his marriage and kids, but he’s sober now and getting his life back on track. He’s traded drones for a desk, and he’s determined to reconcile with his kids and navigate the choppy waters of PTSD.
Clint has been on Travis’s radar ever since he transferred to Anchor Point. When Clint comes out to his colleagues, it’s a disaster, but there’s a silver lining: now that Travis knows Clint is into men, the chemistry between them explodes.
It’s all fun and games until emotions get involved. Clint’s never been in love with a man before. Travis has, and a decade later, that tragic ending still haunts him. Clint needs to coax him past his fear of crashing and burning again, or their love will be grounded before takeoff.